Via a reader tip comes the below article in LIFE magazine that was published on July 24, 1950 which discusses why the US was losing the Korean War. To kind of set the stage for the article it is important to remember that in July 1950 the US military was in full retreat after suffering major battlefield losses to the North Korean military. In fact at the time of the LIFE article the often discussed events at a bridge in No Gun Ri were happening due to the battlefield chaos that was caused by the US military retreat. So what was going on in Korea was quite shocking to the US public at the time because the war in Korea was sold as a “police action” that would be over quickly that suddenly turned into thousands of under-equipped American soldiers being killed on the battlefield. So the American public was of course demanding answers on why the US military was performing so poorly and that is what the LIFE magazine article was attempting to explain.
WHY ARE WE TAKING A BEATING?
On the Korean front retreating American soldiers, bitter at their own blameless failure and the brutal execution of their comrades, were asking some savage questions, “Why don’t you tell them how useless it is?” said Lieut. Edward Jones of Columbus, GA. ”Why don’t they send over something we can really fight a war with?”
On the home front the questions were much the same. The best way to answer them was to begin with the words of another lieutenant: “I hope that guy Johnson is satisfied. I hope all those politicians are happy with the way they saved money on the Army.”
But in the 12 months before the war began the US budgeted $14.4 billion for defense. Was that saving money?
Most of that $14.4 billion paid housekeeping expenses, leaving an ineffective percentage for combat strength.
Should we have spent more?
Yes. In 1948 the late Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and the Joint Chiefs of Staff worked out a minimum budget of $18 billion that would have provided 18 divisions, 70 air groups and 420 combat ships – enough to have given the North Koreans the resistance they deserve.
Why didn’t we spend the extra $4 billion?
Because Harry S. Truman is a politician. During the 1948 campaign he promised the people some expensive things – continued high farm price supports, increased social security – and in order to pay off his campaign promises he took the money from the military budget. He gambled that we would not need Forrestal’s combat forces and lost the gamble.
If it was Truman’s fault, what did the lieutenant mean when he said he hoped that guy Johnson was satisfied?
He meant that Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, claiming “we’re in grand shape,” cut the armed forces money even more. For example the lowered budget called for 12 aircraft carriers. Johnson made it seven. And Johnson cut the Marine Corps, traditionally the readiest fighting force the US has, as if he meant to do away with the Corps entirely.
What’s wrong with the equipment?
“Our shells bounce off those Red tanks like ping-pong balls!” cried a sergeant. In Washington the Defense Department said, “Ten tanks have been lost and two disabled.”
Our troops are fighting with World War II weapons. New ones have have been developed – the 3.5 inch bazooka that can pierce 11 inches of armor, the recoilless 75-mm rifle – but apparently few have been manufactured. As for armor, the few tanks we had in Japan are far lighter than Red tanks and are hopelessly outgunned.
Can’t our planes knock out Red tanks?
Yes. But the Air Force has overemphasized strategic air power. (B-36′s and the atomic bomb) and neglected tactical power (ground support). Our jet fighters, when they flew from Japan, could spend only 10 to 15 minutes over the targets, and their 600 mph speed hampered their accuracy.
A US infantry commander told LIFE Correspondent Carl Mydans, whose report fills the next four pages, “Man for man, we’re better than they are any day of the week. But they’re coming at us 15 to 1.”
Haven’t we any first-line troops to send?
We have but can’t send too many. In a major war the Army expands by building new divisions around the cadres of veterans. If we used up our cadres now, we would be in desperate shape.
What can we do then?
We can fight with what we have. Two of MacArthur’s four divisions are reported in Korea. They have not been kept in combat condition and apparently have not even maintained the inadequate equipment they had – some of it has failed in combat. We will reinforce these divisions with troops from home; Truman was expected to call up some reserves and National Guard units this week. Total mobilizations will be put off as long as possible – it might wreck the US economy, upon which the free world depends.
Our defense line has been broken on the Kum River and we may well wind up holding only a beachhead around the supply port of Pusan. “We definitely expect to stay on the Korean peninsula,” says General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In time, after we have lost many brave men and great prestige, and after we have spent perhaps $10 billion to do it, we wil lfight back to the 38th Parallel. Until then we will go on being kicked around.
At the link you can actually read more articles about the Korean War as well as view a lot of pictures from the conflict that were published in the magazine. It was an interesting read and here is few things I will point out from the article. In 1950 the US military was spending $14 billion on defense which in inflation adjusted dollars would come out to $125 billion today. In comparison the defense budget in 2012 is $671 billion. However, to best compare defense spending is to see what percentage of GDP it is. Currently the military budget is less than 5% of GDP. According to Politifact this percentage of GDP is actually comparable to the historically low levels of defense spending before the Korean War. So it appears that an argument could be made that the US is actually getting more bang for its buck with today’s military than the military that was fielded during the Korean War.